Midsommar ★★★★★

Horror films thrive in the darkness because it's easy to exploit our fear of the unknown and the void. It's much harder to maintain a frightening atmosphere in the daytime as naturally, it's when people feel the safest. Ari Aster proves with his newest film Midsommar (2019) that an idyllic sunny location can be one of the most terrifying places on earth.

The set-up for Midsommar is simple: a group of college-aged young adults want to take a trip to their friend's rural hometown in Sweden to partake in a nine day pagan festival that only occurs every ninety years. Most of the narrative focuses on one particular couple in the group, Dani (Florance Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). After experiencing a major tragedy in her life Dani is going through the stages of grief, but has trouble coping and connecting to Christian who is emotionally distant. This troubled relationship serves as the backbone to the entire film.

Upon reaching the village the group discovers a gorgeous community filled with bright colorful foliage and seemingly welcoming locals. They are invited to take part in increasingly bizarre rituals and it is at that point the film takes off and never looks back. Comparisons will inevitably be made to The Wicker Man (1973) (with shades of Shirley Jackson's haunting story The Lottery) and on a surface level they share similarities, but on a subtextual level they differ greatly. This is at its core a movie about the disintegration of a relationship and the way people internalize grief. Dani (like a lot of women) is constantly being chastised for showing negative emotions, accused of being hysterical, and generally undermined by her peers. As disturbing as the events of Midsommar are, the underlying theme of the film is actually quite wholesome--find the strength to do what makes you happy.

Midsommar isn't just a film that takes place in the daylight, the lighting in the film is overexposed, giving everything a blinding white hue. It's a very unique look and the contrast between the clean white aesthetic and the incredibly gruesome sequences is jarring. There are also some jaunts into surreal imagery as well. A majority of the cult rituals are presented with no explanation and minimal exposition though there are a lot of visual cues to help the more astute viewer piece things together. The framing and camera work is creative and effective and Aster isn't afraid to move the viewpoint around to strange angles. He uses unique scene transitions (he's particularly fond of the smash cut) and there are some truly breathtaking shots--especially in the third act. The score, provided by The Haxan Cloak, is fantastic with dark ambient pieces mixed with happy folksy music. The sound design is incredible and it adds to the foreboding feel immensely. Occasionally joyful music will slowly morph into atonal noise and there are also some intense scenes that utilize silence to great effect.

The tone changes oscillating between darkly funny dialogue and harrowing set-pieces. Aster handles this tone switching masterfully, and it serves as an interesting alternative to traditional jump scares. This movie is drenched in dread and it permeates every scene. It's more unsettling than outright scary, but when all hell breaks loose there's no stopping the momentum.

Midsommar is a mind-blowing trip into complete lunacy that hides a positive message about empathy and self-actualization. Come dance with abandon and enjoy basking in the sun. Midsommar is here!